Trashy tech: Europe’s dirty secret of destroying unsold electronics

Destruction of unsold electronics is rampant across Europe. Yet the European Commission remains in denial about one of the most environmentally harmful market practices and is dragging its feet on a ban in the EU’s upcoming Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR).

Sonja Leyvraz and Bich Dao report.

Fresh out of the factory, into the trash – this is the story of many of our electronic appliances and devices. In 2022, tonnes of brand new, unsold electronics with estimated untapped values of 3.7 billion Euros were destroyed in Europe due to overstocking, returns, obsolescence, or cosmetic imperfections, instead of getting resold or donated.

Fueled by a growing market for disposable tech, this practice contributes to the bloc’s deepening e-waste crisis. According to Eurostat latest data, 4.9 million tonnes of e-waste was collected just in 2021 in Europe, a portion of which is undoubtedly products in mint condition.

This represents an unnecessary waste on multiple levels: firstly, many of the goods are perfectly functionable and could be put to use; secondly, the entire environmental footprint of the devices including the precious resources they contain goes waste; and lastly, there is a missed opportunity for Europe’s growing reuse and refurbishment sector.

Waste by design

The chase for profit margins in a hyper-competitive industry has led to business models with built-in destructive practices as a cost-cutting measure. Pressure to destroy goods often comes from online marketplaces who aim to cut costs while acting as intermediaries between consumers and retailers.

It is, for example, cheaper for sellers to dump returned products than putting it back on the (virtual or physical) shelves. In the Netherlands, a third of returned consumer electronics are not resold at all, but instead are sent back to manufacturers or directly disposed. A company that offers product destruction services states that products, including consumer electronics, are often destroyed even though there is nothing wrong with them – simply because it is cheaper and faster than inspecting, repackaging and reselling.

To meet consumer demands in matters of days, a normalised expectation in today’s market, bulk purchasing and overstocking result in product destruction to manage inventory and improve profit margin, according to a Swedish study on the destruction of unsold electronics and textiles .

Amazon and the destruction epidemic

The name Amazon, the American multinational e-commerce platform which reported record profits this year, made a regular appearance in research for this article. Amazon infractions span an impressive geographical range within Europe, including The Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Austria, and the UK.

In Italy, Amazon destroyed up to 100,000 unsold products monthly in 2020, including electronics. The company has more than quadrupled the price of storage after the first few months, pushing external sellers to eliminate their leftover stock rapidly. To get rid of the unsold goods, the company offers vendors two services: returning for EUR 0.25 per item or destroying for a meager EUR 0.10 per item. However, the impact of these policies is unlikely to come to light, as strict confidentiality clauses for waste management companies and employees were reported.

In Spain, five trailers worth of products are destroyed daily only in Madrid area, the majority of which are electronics. Journalists found that Amazon has obtained the contractual right to destroy the seller’s merchandise without their consent or right to compensation in cases of disagreements with the seller. For products that arrive at Amazon with any minor damage (even to the packaging) or missing cables, the cost of destroying would be weighed against the cost of repackaging or repairing for resale or return to the manufacturer– a tough battle to win when some locations offer the service of destroying products for free.  

Among many other reasons, the company practice is likely emboldened by the fact that online platforms are still not subjected to the same consumer and environmental requirements as other sellers and manufacturers in EU.

Law for the single market

An EU-wide malpractice needs an EU-wide regulations. Taking stock from the Belgian, French and German governments’ attempts to block the practice on national level, the single market setting means that violators can simply move their practice elsewhere in the bloc. In the case of Germany and Belgium, reports of the destruction of unsold goods continue.

In order to make the measures truly effective, campaigners have relentlessly called on European lawmakers for an immediate EU-wide ban on the destruction of unsold goods under the ESPR. The  latest letter amasses the signatures of 46 NGOs and business associations.

As the ESPR now enter its final rounds of interinstitutional negotiations, the call to save unsold goods from destruction is not just a plea; it is a call for action against the frivolous misuse of precious resources. It is an opportunity for the EU to build a secondary market economy of local refurbishers and social economy actors. What’s more, the bloc must demonstrate its commitment to a circular economy and responsible waste management in order to set an example for other regions to follow suit.